Nina Shope, Hangings: Three Novellas (Starcherone, 2005)
"In Hangings, a young woman learns that her mother is dying and finds herself stalked by nightmarish figures - the hideously transformed maiden, Arachne, an upside-down man in a Miro painting, and spiders that hatch and haunt the text like tumors.
In Urbem imagines an archetypal ancient city, that city beneath the pavement of all modern cities, in fantastic prose reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
Finally, Hagiographies explores two intense female friendships, both of which are suddenly shattered, in a wildly inventive narrative proceeding by means of juxtaposed images rather than sequential events."
"Nina Shope weaves a suspension of alluring delicacy, strength, and beauty." - Carole Maso
"Whether it is busy metastasizing cancer into mythology or invoking into existence a desire-fraught and maddened harpy of a city, Nina Shope's writing is smart and carefully layered - yet at the most unexpected moments it is the emotional equivalent of an open wound. An impressive debut." - Brian Evenson
"The dazzling debut of an immensely talented and big-hearted writer. These hypnotically beautiful novellas are wildly intelligent, deeply felt, and full of reminders that 'experimental' writing just means: writing that is trying with all its heart to account for the many wonders of the world." - George Saunders
"The publication of Hangings inaugurates a writer of literary stature and significance, power and grace. With a seminal style that defies definition, Nina Shope has delivered a masterwork, both profoundly beautiful and profoundly disturbing. It is a visionary book that yet never forgets what makes literature matter. From a mythical city infested with prophets to quests shaped by stars on the floor, all roads lead to the depths of her characters' souls. In a world where sophisticated work is often bloodless, Hangings is a work with heart, Hangings is a work that matters." - Arthur Flowers
"Hagiographies... explores the intensities of youth, the wildness and weirdness of sex, the incredible complexity of words not spoken, 'letters' never sent, lives lived only in fragment, expectation, loneliness, misdirection, and loss. This is a writer of depth and scope." - Kenneth Bernard
"In Peter Greenaway's 1996 film, The Pillow Book, the female protagonist struggles after her lover's death to become the pen instead of the paper. To provide inspiration and to give contour to her experiences, she searches ancient Eastern traditions for written traces of women's lives. In Hangings: Three Novellas, Nina Shope paints characters who similarly struggle
for voice. Her book, however, is informed by the ancient Greek and Roman roots that undergird the Western tradition, especially the worlds of women, which, though written about obsessively, were never voiced by women themselves. Shope reminds us that perhaps the memory of those ancient stories clings to us in ways we have yet to imagine...
The book exemplifies the best of experimental fiction: jarring us out of our complacency with narrative, chalenging our conceptions of the writer's craft, overturning our expectations of language. One strange effect of this book is that the three novellas, so very different in tone and topic, can be read seamlessly; likewise, any discrete page becomes a poem...
Shope has written tragedy in the Greek sense of the word - something inevitable, beyond grief, beyond poignancy, with Medea-like impact." - Holli Baumgartner
"The first line of Nina Shope's Hangings, a collection of three experimental novellas, shows the connection between a mother and a daughter and, while doing so, immediately connects the reader to the scene at hand: "When they are reading like this, her head on her mother's breast, the empty shell of her ear covering her mother's nipple, it is as if they have become one fused and fantastical creature." Shope, expanding on this line, endows the scene with its own calm and reverberating breath. "The girl hears her mother's voice resonate with each ear. The stories entering her right ear are of myths, monsters, transformations. Words of the mouth. Yet the left ear, pressed to the breast, hears a second strain of sound. A language that comes from the nipple. A humming, which begins in her mother's throat, fills her ribcage, echoes through the dome of her breast." Shope evokes the essential magic of words and of the mother through this sensual description of reading. She also reminds us to listen with both of our ears – one taking in the resonance of the words – when reading this memorable, original novella.
The plot of this first novella, "Hangings," is, like Shope's language here, rooted to the body. We soon learn that the mother, who is never named, has become ill with breast cancer. To describe this change, Shope uses words that create a rhythm of disruption; and in between these words come silent spaces that are filled with a new sense of isolation for the daughter: "And her mother's breast sounds suddenly hollow. Emptied of everything but tissues. Glands. Tumors. And knotted veins." The mother will no longer be reading to the girl, who also is never named over the course of the novella. The girl is becoming a woman and now is too old to be read to, says the mother, who believes her daughter "should be going out. Seeing friends. Meeting boys." As the once "fused and fantastical creature" falls apart, the mother and girl must embark on their own physical transformations into, respectively, illness and womanhood. Shope illustrates how these transformations are every bit as strange as the myths that the mother is describing in the opening scene when she is reading out loud from what turns out to be Ovid's Metamorphoses.
In her second novella, Shope uses Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as her central allusion. "In Urbem" is an exploration of an ancient city populated by winged women, vestal virgins, priests, lovers, Caligula, Caesar, his mother, architects, nurses, senators. Part of this crowded city is powered by "the friction of bodies in moments of desire": "when lovers quarrel the quarter is dark for days. sometimes it is lighted for weeks on end. luminous. the lovers' bodies raising the temperature to an unbearable degree." Shope is drawing upon Calvino's cadences in Invisible Cities, altered by her own preference for sentence fragments, and throughout "In Urbem," she is also borrowing on the basic premise of Calvino's book: her city, like his invisible one, dwells within the imagination and appears to be many different cities at once. But unlike Calvino's novel, which reads like a fanciful and philosophical poem, Shope's "In Urbem" is often airless and without whimsy. It sits beneath the architecture of Invisible Cities and stays there, suffering from a lack of movement.
The last novella "Hagiographies" begins and ends with a quote from Djuna Barnes's Nightwood. Shope enters the territory so sharply explored by Barnes in Nightwood by taking on the subject of obsessive, destructive love between two women. The prose is polished as it is throughout the book and the ending is a quiet surprise, but the relationship between the women remains superficial throughout much of the piece. It doesn't help that one of the women is solely referred to as "the girl with the black eyes." The phrase is repeated often, along with "the girl with the pixie haircut," another character, who, quite possibly, is friends with Aimee Bender's "girl in the flammable skirt," I don't know. I do know that the repetitive phrases soon annoyed me, and I realized that Shope was not living up to the wonderful promise of her title novella, "Hangings." She was not allowing her girls to transform into women, and as a result, the last novella suffers from an odd gap. The external reference to the complicated and poetic Nightwood seems disconnected from the flatness of the characters contained within the story and the coy clichés Shope uses to describe them." - Caroline Wilkinson
"Nina Shope has always been a writer. Even before she could hold a pencil, the lifelong Beverly Road resident was dictating stories to her mother. “I still have all these stapled, scrap-paper books from when I was around 4, stories about runaway pumpkins, witches and caterpillars,” she said.
Next to them on her shelves now is an even more impressive publication: her first book, “Hangings,” a brilliantly reviewed collection of three novellas that is being heralded for blazing a new direction in fiction writing. Next Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m. in the library’s Wakelin Room, Shope will be reading from her book at an event co-sponsored by the library and the Wellesley Booksmith.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” Shope said. “It was something I focused on with singular intensity, even as a child.” Her mother read aloud to Shope and her sister, Nikki, “long, difficult books, mostly fantasies, so I became an avid reader. I still read and re-read some of those books we read together: ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ‘The Neverending Story,’ the ‘Earthsea Trilogy.’”
Shope’s love of experiencing and creating alternate worlds bloomed further with Sylvie Morris, who lived a few houses away. They met at age 2 and are still best friends. “We both loved reading, writing and playing make-believe games in the woods by Bates,” she said. “We fed each other’s imagination from an early age, and I’m very grateful for that.”
At Bates School, just a short walk away, the budding writer was discovered and nurtured. Shope still expresses fond gratitude to her kindergarten teacher, Barbara Sturgis, also a neighbor; her sixth-grade teacher Diane Burkhart, who told the very shy Shope in front of the whole class that she wrote “wonderful stories;” and her second-grade teacher, Bob Blue, who had her keep a journal and compose a book of stories, which are still on her shelf.
“Throughout my schooling in Wellesley I had amazing teachers, who fed my love of reading and writing,” she says. “I owe them a tremendous debt. I feel very fortunate to have reconnected with several of them in recent years. Mr. Blue passed away last year, and I am thankful that before he died, I was able to tell him what a profound effect he had on my life.”
At Wellesley High, she calls her sophomore thesis in Jeannie Goddard’s English class “an amazing experience,” and cherished the encouragement and support from her junior year teacher, Ronna Frick. When Shope graduated from Wellesley High, she took with her the Sylvia Plath Creative Writing Award.
“I remember thinking how amazing it was that Plath went to Wellesley High School and lived in town,” she said. “I’m still very proud to have an award named in her honor.”
Next came the undergraduate honors program in creative writing at Brown University, where she moved from high school poetry (and two “rather awful novels that won’t ever see the light of day”) to fiction.
“Brown is a school that encourages experimentation, which worked really well for me, since I became increasingly attracted to writing fragmentary, non-linear, non-character-based narratives,” she said. “I wanted to write compressed, imagistic, language-based prose that would be structured more like poetry than fiction but would still tell stories.”
Which she did with great success, publishing stories, performing readings (“terrifying!”), earning her bachelor’s degree with honors, and winning the Barbara Banks Brodsky Prize in Creative Writing (for the novella “Hangings”). After graduation, she was selected for a residency at the Millay Colony for the Fine Arts.
At Syracuse University, on a fully funded three-year fellowship for an MFA in fiction, more prizes and prestigious publications followed, including the highly competitive national Starcherone Fiction Prize for “Hangings.”
The book, published by Starcherone Books, consists of three novellas: “Hangings” and “In Urbem” which made up her undergraduate thesis; and “Hagiographies,” her graduate thesis. It has been hailed as a brave, scorching leap in experimental fiction, a stunning and audacious work of lyricism, style and astonishing grace.
“The collection, and my writing in general, centers upon themes of gender and sexuality, bodily disintegration, desire and fantastical excess,” Shope says. “All three novellas explore the beauty and the terror of embodiment, enmeshment, inextricability — the way physical and emotional experiences transform and imbue bodies and texts.
“Much of my writing revolves around the complexity of female relationships — the mirroring, fusion and estrangement that occurs between mothers, daughters, sisters, friends. I want to expose the intense connections and disconnections within these relationships for which there are no social parameters, no acceptable emotional outlets.”
Author George Saunders called “Hangings” a “dazzling debut,” adding “these hypnotically beautiful novellas are wildly intelligent, deeply felt ... writing that is trying with all its heart to account for the many wonders of the world.”
Writer Arthur Flowers said its publication “inaugurates a writer of literary stature and significance. With a seminal style that defies definition, Nina Shope has delivered a masterwork, both profoundly beautiful and profoundly disturbing. It is a visionary book that never forgets what makes literature matter.”
“I write in narrative fragments, structuring each story by means of accretion, convergence and superimposition,” Shope says, trying to explain the inventively rich and almost dizzying labyrinth of language, images and emotions she creates for her readers.
She said, “I use experimental techniques to heighten and intensify the emotional core of my fiction. When I experience an emotional event, it isn’t a linear process. My mind becomes obsessed with connections, resonances — linking events, images, time, people and words together in an almost maddening fashion. In my fiction, I try to evoke a similar sort of emotional state using repetition, unusual juxtapositions and unexpected connections to create emotional layers, rather than simply describing an event or a feeling.
“I want to create a more primal experience for the reader. In doing so, I seek to access a commonality of feeling, often rooted in one’s nightmares or greatest fears.”
References and allusions to myth and allegories course through Shope’s prose, influences she traces back to her earliest years. “My mother [Judy] sparked my interest in mythology,” she says, “and my father [Robert] taught me a great deal about symbolism. After seeing a movie, my parents, my sister, and I would discuss the imagery and subtext of the film. We still do. That’s one reason I love to explore doubled meanings, imagistic resonances, and symbolism in my writing. My favorite texts are those that are densely layered with meaning.”
Shope creates these texts in a writing routine which is somewhat sporadic.
“When I’m working on something, I can write for a solid chunk of hours and produce a lot of material,” she said. “But my fiction is pretty dark and emotional, so it requires a certain amount of psychological space. I don’t always want to put myself into the writing ‘mood.’” She works in an unorthodox way, writing in bits and pieces without a particular order.
“I jump from image to image and let the text evolve as a series of fragments,” she explained. “I try to think of all the scenes or images that might interest me and let them emerge organically. Once I’ve run out of sections to write, I work on putting the fragments into a provisional order.
“My sister, Nikki, helps me enormously during this stage of the process. She’s extremely astute at pulling out underlying images, connections or themes in my work that will help me structure a given piece. We work really well together, very intuitively, and honestly she’s the best editor I could possibly hope for.”
Currently Shope is deeply immersed in her new novel, based on French neurologist J.M. Charcot’s examination of hysteria at the end of the 19th century.
“My book examines the historical relationship between Charcot and his star patient,” she said. “It encompasses concepts of photographic doubling, hysterical simulation and performance, and the theatrical self-presentation of both patient and doctor in Charcot’s asylum.”
When Shope emerges from the worlds she creates, she delights in the daily world around her. Recently engaged to Chris Narozny, another fiction writer she met at Syracuse, they are planning their December wedding.
“Our writing is very different stylistically, which makes us good readers of one another’s work, since we come at writing from different angles,” she says. Chris, who is completing a Ph.D in creative writing at Denver University, has recently finished a novel and found an agent.
Helping to keep them grounded in the nonliterary world is a bossy 24-pound diva named Mila, an impish, turbo-charged red-and-white corgi who “rules the roost. She’s made a huge difference in my life, and Chris and I adore her.”
Always driven to keep busy, even when relaxing she channels her creativity into hobbies: making beaded jewelry, holiday ornaments and embroidered Frida Kahlo dolls, which she sells in galleries; knitting; doing crossword puzzles; taking Spanish lessons with Chris; and practicing the flute.
But it is writing which is her passion, her center, her life’s blood. “Writing fulfills a number of important functions for me,” she says. “It helps me unravel the events, feelings, thoughts, and relationships that most mystify and confound me.
“It allows me to confront my deepest fears and emotions, while also celebrating moments of profound beauty. I believe great hope and connection can exist in the spaces where fear and beauty meet. That is part of the revelatory, transformative power of fiction.” - Beth Hinchliffe
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